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Lawmakers Looking to Haslam for Leadership out of Unemployment Doldrums

Joblessness in Tennessee has reportedly eased somewhat since Bill Haslam was on the campaign trail. But there’s still widespread agreement among elected state leaders that a most pressing task at hand is enacting policies that breathe life into the stagnant employment market.

With an unemployment rate that has for many months shown 1-in-10 Tennesseans without work — and often much higher in rural counties — Haslam and other political candidates spent a lot of campaign time assuring voters that improving people’s chances of connecting with a private-sector paycheck would be a top priority for state government in 2011.

Candidate Haslam, now Tennessee’s governor-elect, vowed to make Tennessee No. 1 in the Southeast for job creation. But with six weeks to go before he officially takes office, there’s still no solid plan on the table for making that a reality.

At its highest, the Tennessee unemployment rate topped off at 10.9 percent in summer of 2009. A few months later, national unemployment hit a record 10.1 percent, the highest since the economic downturn began in December 2007.

Since then, unemployment numbers have slowly fallen. Last month, national unemployment measured 9.6 percent, slightly higher than Tennessee’s 9.4 percent. But numbers released Friday indicate American unemployment, now at 9.8 percent, could be on the uptick again.

Economists say this is the longest streak of 9 percent or higher unemployment rates since World War II, and they don’t expect a significant drop anytime soon. Those numbers will likely fall to about 9 percent by the end of next year and hover around 8 percent by the end of 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.

No one can accuse Haslam of not having done the legwork necessary to get a grip on the severity of what people are facing across the Volunteer State.

He was on the campaign trail through the worst of it, driving around the Grand Divisions during some of the hardest months for Tennessee workers since the Great Depression. Last March he embarked specifically on a three-week “jobs tour” to survey business owners, community leaders and economic-development officials for ideas that would spur growth and demand for work.

He offered few hard-and-fast policy details about how he planned to help create jobs, preferring instead to offer a vision for using yet-to-be-fully-developed regionally focused approaches for tackling issues that stand in the way of job-market recovery.

“Are the economic development needs of every part of Tennessee the same?” Haslam said in a commercial aired in May. “No, they’re not. Every region has its own unique strengths. Let’s develop a regional approach, each area with its own job creation strategy.”

Haslam has said he wants to develop 12 to 14 regional economic development centers that can leverage the needs and strengths of each area — such as a vibrant medical district or proximity to state parks. These hubs, he said, would be better equipped to develop strategic ways for attracting jobs to those area than centralized solutions cooked up in Nashville.

In part of his larger restructuring of the Department of Economic Development, he said on the campaign trail he would create a new director’s position specifically focusing on small towns, rural development and agricultural issues to develop strategies for each region.

Haslam also wants to create a statewide online jobs clearinghouse to hook up job seekers with hiring employers, saying the website would include information on economic trends and projected workforce demands so entrepreneurs and potential employees could learn more about the area’s needs.

Another leg of his plan for job creation includes keeping taxes low and removing some “burdensome” business regulations to create a business-friendly atmosphere, which will likely be key priorities in the Legislature, Republican leaders from both chambers say.

Tennessee’s business climate now has mixed ratings among independent groups, although the state is usually categorized as more business-friendly than many, often even most.

Small business owners are generally happy with the state’s business climate, but they would have an easier time creating more jobs if a couple key issues were addressed, said Jim Brown, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business which represents 85,000 companies in the Volunteer State, more than half with three or fewer employees.

The NFIB has already begun talking with Haslam’s crew, as well as newly nominated House Republican Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, all of whom Brown said are agreeable to taking the legislative steps to make doing business easier for small companies.

NFIB’s wish list includes capping punitive and non-economic damages — such as pain and suffering — in “frivolous lawsuits,” closing loopholes that allow unemployment abuses and keeping an eye out for workers’ compensation fraud, all of which, he contends, would free up money for small business to hire more employees.

The governor-elect has not said whether these ideas or others would be part his jobs-creation push. Since his Nov. 2 election, he has been hand-picking people to sit on his leadership team, like department commissioners and inner-circle administrators, said his spokesman, David Smith.

Lawmakers in Tennessee agree that their top priority next year is to create jobs, but the top Republican legislative leaders say they’re unsure how Haslam wants them to do it.

Even though he’s met with Haslam at least half a dozen times since the election, Ramsey said the specifics of “what’s in his jobs package” haven’t been laid out for him.

Harwell, a strong supporter of Haslam’s gubernatorial campaign, indicated she’s agreeable to giving the new administration latitude and time to fully develop and implement a strategy for putting people back to work.

“We look forward to the proposals that Governor-elect Bill Haslam will bring forward,” she said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday. “We remain focused on laying the groundwork to help small businesses create jobs in Tennessee, and fostering an environment in which the economy here in Tennessee can thrive.”

The governor-elect’s spokesman said the governor needs a team in place before anyone can carry out policy-making assignments.

Rank-and-file lawmakers say they don’t know what to expect from the new governor, but whatever it is, it better be good.

“We’ve been given a job to bring jobs home, and we have to do it because we’re on probation,” said Sen. Jim Summerville, a newly elected Dickson Republican who unseated well-known Democratic Sen. Doug Jackson in last month’s election.

“If we don’t respond and succeed with growing jobs, then we’ll be out of a job in a couple years,” he said.

Even though Democrats are still smarting from the loss of 14 seats in last month’s election, some have suggested that the change-up in political dynamics might not have been the worst thing to have happen in order to encourage taking a clean-slate look at this persistent problem facing Tennessee.

New blood might bring in some good new ideas, said Rep. John Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville. Although it’s not like paving the way for job creation is something elected officials never though of before, he added.

His district includes one of the most economically depressed counties in the state, Perry County, which has a 13.4 percent unemployment rate.

“Would you not think that I’m doing everything I can possibly for job creation?” said Tidwell. “There’s a lot of things the state of Tennessee is already doing. If he’s going to do anything more that what we’ve been doing, I’d like to hear of a fresh idea.”

Most of the job-creation policy leadership should come from the governor himself, said Rep. John DeBerry, Jr., D-Memphis, who is seeking his party’s nomination for House Democratic Party leader.

A major part of the new governor’s job will be convincing businesses — both within the U.S. and worldwide — to relocate to Tennessee, he said, while lawmakers of all political stripes make sure they avoid passing laws that hinder businesses.

“As a legislator, I understand my limited impact on this issue and I understand that what we do is not getting in the way of job growth and not creating legislation that makes people want to do business anywhere beside in the state of Tennessee,” he said.